By The Rev. Dan Scheid
Closing St. Paul’s every-Tuesday lunch ministry for the end of November and all of December last year was one of the more frustrating calls I’ve had to make as parish priest.
I had been noticing, along with volunteers and lunch guests, that tension and tempers in the parish hall were rising all year, and on consecutive weeks in November, scuffles broke out. The first was over an accusation of a stolen cell phone and the second was a lovers’ triangle gone predictably wrong.
I was away both times, and after the second incident, the parishioner who leads the program sent me a text message and asked that we take a break and close, at least for the next week and likely longer. She had consulted with volunteers and guests, and while opinions were mixed—who wants to shut church doors to hungry people between Thanksgiving and Christmas?—I took her advice and I played Ebenezer Scrooge, putting a “closed until further notice” sign on the door. Bah, humbug!
It was important to me that we not see these Tuesdays as pre-Christmas free time. Shutting our doors to scores of hungry neighbors because of the behavior of a few ought to have consequences for the parish, too. I asked parishioners to meet with me to talk about the ministry, to use our time in an intentional and systematic way.
Pausing to ponder and reassess
At our first meeting, I wanted to know how they were feeling about the tensions, the fights, and about closing for a time. As their pastor, I care deeply about their wellbeing. At our second meeting we talked about the purpose of the lunch ministry; what is it exactly that we’re doing and why. And at our third meeting we looked at what we do best, and we talked about some changes we could make to reclaim the sacredness of the space, to make sure we’re holy and wholly hospitable.
At the end of the third meeting, it was clear that we had spent our time well and that we would be ready to reopen the first Tuesday in January. My parishioners asked me if I would take on a larger role in the program, offering a ministry of peace and presence by being in the parish hall from ten-thirty when we open until one o’clock when we close, rather than checking in and out and often being away on other pastoral duties, so I reordered my priorities and my time.
I do my best to stay out of the way of the folks in the kitchen, lending a hand only if needed. Instead I drink coffee and swap stories with our guests, keep an eye out for people who may be troubled or troubling, lead a non-compulsory communion service, and line up for lunch with everyone.
Now I’m glad I made that frustrating call to close. I learned a lot about my parishioners, our guests, and the Tuesday lunch ministry by taking time to pause, to ponder, and to pray. At the time I really hated stopping what we were doing and closing our doors in what turned out to be an unusually cold and snowy December. But in hindsight we needed the break to reassess the ministry and renew our spirits.
Winter came for real Jan. 20
Despite December’s calendar-claim on the first day of winter, winter came for real in a January 20 capital-city, blow-hard blizzard, inaugurating not a snow storm but a storm of another four letter “s” word.
Tempers and tension in the nation had been rising throughout the previous year; I don’t need to rehearse the litany of political improbabilities gone unpredictably right for the one who more than half the electorate deemed impossibly wrong.
The outcry from this majority has been swift and the resistance relentless against the now-incumbent and his swampy cabinet appointees, his executive orders, his end-arounds, his gag-orders, his racism, sexism and xenophobia, his Orwellian “alternate facts”, his travel ban, and his Bannon.
We’ve seen post-election protests decrying the mismatch between the popular and electoral vote, pussy-hatted women marches, airport rallies, letter-writing and phone-calling campaigns, impassioned sermons and pastoral proclamations, grass-roots organizing, and social media skirmishes.
And among ourselves more quietly, we’ve asked questions that carry the shoulder-shrug of disorientation and despair: Is this enough? Will any of this make a difference? What else can we do? What’s next? Who’s next?
It all seems too much, doesn’t it; and yet who among the resisting class feels we can afford to look away, as one day—even one hour—gives way to another fresh hell? — and we must be vigilant against the next executive overreach.
Our hearts need a break
And yet, as a pastor in the neighborhood, I care deeply about your well-being. You need, I need, we need a break from all of this. We need to put a “closed until further notice” sign on the doors of our hearts and use this time in an intentional and systematic way to take care of ourselves.
I’m not calling for a resistance stoppage. I’m not asking for a multi-week moratorium on protests and marches and phone calls. We’ve too much to lose. But I am inviting you to find a room in your home, if you’re so lucky to have the space, or a time in your day, to create a madness-free zone; a place you go where you commit not to take your newspaper or your device with you, where you turn off NPR and think about something other than the latest outrage, or nothing at all.
Write a letter to a friend, pet your dog, make a peanut butter sandwich, pick up a deck of cards and play solitaire, or Crazy Eights if you have a partner. Pray, if that’s what you do, but I’ll just end up praying about the mess, so for me prayer isn’t my madness-free zone.
Give yourself five or ten minutes or a half hour where you disconnect—reorder your priorities and your time—so you’ll have the reserve and the resolve to keep on resisting. I fear this winter is going to be a long one.
February’s Village Life guest columnist, The Rev. Dan Scheid, lives on Blanchard Avenue and is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Flint. He can be reached at email@example.com.